Imagine being 24. Two years out of college and still adjusting to life as an adult. You’re working full time in the financial industry and going to graduate school at night. Then you get a phone call. A call from your former coach who has built one of the best high school girls lacrosse programs in New Jersey. She’s asking you to take over for her and be the new head coach. What on earth do you say? You’re only 24. Are you really the best candidate? Can you really fill those shoes? What on earth do you say?
I said yes.
At 24, I thought the most important part of being a successful coach was winning. Not just winning any game, but winning the big games. So when I finished compiling our regular season schedule, 10 out of 13 games were against the top 15 teams in the state. Need to beat the best to be the best, right? My athletic director asked me if I was sure I wanted to go this route.
I said yes.
My inaugural season leading the girl’s lacrosse program at Mendham High School wasn’t smooth sailing. I ruffled a few feathers along the way too, but I needed to trust the process. We lost in the semi-finals of the county tournament when we were expected to win. We lost some games we should have won and a few of those weren’t even close. There we were, sitting on a three game losing streak. That was pretty unheard of for our program. Everyone was acting like the world was going to end. Including me.
Following our loss in the county semi-finals, I called a meeting with the six seniors. I asked them what they needed from me. I asked them how we could right the ship together. Before I knew it, everyone was crying. All I could think at that time was how terrible I am in these situations. But there was something different about it. It wasn’t the type of crying that makes you feel like things are breaking down. It was the opposite. You could feel them uniting. You could feel the heart these six players were putting into this team. This season was important to them. This team was incredibly important to them. I asked them if they were ready to make some noise in our state tournament run.
They said yes.
We cruised through our first three games in the state tournament by a combined score of 47-8. Next was the state sectional championship and people were beginning to think things were going to get a lot tougher for us. Well, we won 15-1 and were crowned state sectional champions. Winning was great. I won’t take anything away from that. But there was something special about what was happening. This was bigger than any one individual. This was about a group of girls who took immense pride in playing for this program. They were doing this thing together. With only eight teams left playing in the state of New Jersey, our next stop was playing the number one team in the state and the number two team in the nation, Moorestown.
There we were at Monmouth University on the Saturday morning following our high school’s junior/senior prom gearing up to play in the group championship game. No one thought we had a chance. Newspapers were predicting that we would lose by nine goals. You see, Moorestown had this remarkable player named Marie McCool (you may have heard of her). But the entire Moorestown team was no joke either. That didn’t matter to us though. We were Mendham. We weren’t too shabby either. We weren’t going to let anyone walk all over us.
We held the lead for most of the first half with a score of 3-2. It was turning into quite a battle. With a few seconds left in the half, Marie McCool ripped a shot in the top right corner from the goal line extended to tie the game at 3. I’ll give it to her. That shot was pretty insane. The second half wasn’t much different. With around eight minutes left in the game, Moorestown was up 6-4 and most people thought the magic was running out for us. I can tell you though, there were 24 players and 2 coaches on the sideline that would tell you this wasn’t over. They would tell you that Mendham was going to win this thing.
With around seven minutes left in the game, the score was now 6-5 and there was no way we were going to lose. This was our year. This was our day. This was our moment. When the buzzer sounded signaling the end of the game, we were on the losing end. We lost 6-5. As I stood on the sideline stunned, the team rallied around our goalie with tears streaming down their faces. As I watched them jog over to the sideline, I didn’t know what to expect and I certainly wasn’t prepared for what was coming.
Hugs. Lots of hugs and lots of cheers. They were sad, but they were so incredibly proud. They were proud of what they had accomplished. They were proud of what they had done together. All of this was possible because they believed. They believed in the system; in the process. They believed in me and they believed in themselves. They believed in the work they put in and all the hours they spent preparing. It’s amazing what can happen when you believe. After the game newspaper reporters asked me if I would have ever thought we’d win this game.
I laughed and said yes.
At 24, I thought the most important part of being a successful coach was winning. I can tell you that after that game, I no longer feel that way. It’s about instilling confidence and encouraging an unmatched work ethic every day. It’s about caring, not only about your players as athletes, but as individuals. It’s about getting your players to make sacrifices; sacrificing for something bigger than just themselves. It’s about believing; believing in what you’re doing and who you’re doing it with.
To this day, that season was a game changer for me. That season and that game made me realize how special being a coach really is. Ask me now if the decision I made at the age of 24 changed me for the better.
Yes. Definitely yes.